Sam Smith – In my search for virus era sanity I have tried to recall anything that had approached the dysfunction this experience has brought to my normal life. Two thoughts arose. I remembered three decades ago driving by a fast food eatery in my Washington neighborhood and reflecting on my recently discovered cancer. “My life is ruined,” I started thinking but then suddenly said aloud, “No, this is my life.” My approach to the illness totally changed.
The other recollection, two decades earlier, was of the bridge of my Coast Guard cutter in deep night storms as we headed to rescue fishing vessels. In the total blackness there were three of us – a helmsman, quartermaster and me, the officer on watch – with nothing to say but with a silent common goal: what had to be done.
Once again, function obliterated emotion, reflection, dreams, habit, and history. The only thing that mattered was what you did now.
We are in such a moment now in which our normal lives are involuntarily suspended as we share what is probably the most extraordinary period of our lifetimes. Never have we had to face not just a critical health crisis, and to do so during a time when the economy is collapsing and our democratic government is being dictatorized,
Even by disease standards, it is an extraordinary moment. The Huffington Post, for example, reports that “Vaccine expert Dr. Peter Hotez predicted the coronavirus will continue to plague the United States ‘for years and years, even after vaccines are out and we get people vaccinated.’”
And the past suggests we’re in for change in many ways. Writing in Rolling Stone, Wade Davis notes that
“Pandemics and plagues have a way of shifting the course of history, and not always in a manner immediately evident to the survivors. In the 14th Century, the Black Death killed close to half of Europe’s population. A scarcity of labor led to increased wages. Rising expectations culminated in the Peasants Revolt of 1381, an inflection point that marked the beginning of the end of the feudal order that had dominated medieval Europe for a thousand years. The COVID pandemic will be remembered as such a moment in history, a seminal event whose significance will unfold only in the wake of the crisis.”
And bad times are not always as bad as they seem. For example, dinosaurs survived on the earth 27 times as long as humans have been here, so we may still have a few million years ahead of us. And after telling someone that I felt these days like I was living in the 19th century, I later thought I better check on something. Sure enough, life expectancy in 1860 was 39 and in 1920 it was 53.
Still, there are things we can learn from the past. For example, the pace of social activity was much milder thanks to things like no cars, television or cellphones. Living in rural Maine, I have been struck by how painlessly less dramatic the virus has been to my lifestyle than, say, if I was still in Washington. In fact, musing about a workable Covid era lifestyle I found myself thinking of running an Internet Service out of a farm, offering gigabytes and egg bites at the same time.
We are in a period in which imagination and creativity will have higher value. And a period full of pain and misery. As citizens we can’t change virus story except to wear our masks and keep our distance, but we can end the Trump virus by electing a new president.
Our job is not to solve our health problem but to give serious assistance to those with the skill to do so and to end the assault on their efforts. Whether we succeed or become one of the victims, we can not foretell but even if we are among of the latter, we can at least have done something to prevent others from joining us. And chances are, it didn’t happen, as in 1860, when we were only 39 years old.